Yangon and Back – Circle Loop Myanmar: 11.11.2013

On our final day in Myanmar we woke early and got chatting with another traveler. It was certainly interesting to hear another person’s point of view about Myanmar and great to get some advice and insight into travel in Vietnam – a destination we’re headed to next month.
What I found interesting was thinking about Myanmar as being a country that, at the present moment, can be seen changing, growing and developing so quickly. In some ways, you could “feel” the development and changes around you, so to speak; especially in the tiny town of Hsipaw, for example, where seven new guest houses are currently being built to be ready late 2013, in order to keep up with the demand for accommodation. That’s how quickly tourism appears to be growing and an example of how much more accessible Myanmar will continue to become.

Matt joined us this morning for breakfast and the three of us decided to go together on the city circle loop train around the entire of Yangon today – a different type of tourist attraction, you could say, that offers insight into the different areas of Yangon and a glimpse at life in and around this city.

We walked down to the train station, accidentally stumbling into a fascinating morning market in full swing. There were locals everywhere eating and slurping bowls of noodles, fried goods bubbling away in boiling vats of oil, people sitting drinking tea, people buying and selling and the pungent smell of raw meat mixed with fresh produce floating through the air. If we hadn’t been in a hurry to catch the 10:15 circle loop train no doubt we would’ve stopped for a snack and a few photographs.

When we arrived at the train station, walking past vendors selling slices of fresh watermelon and water, we purchased our tickets and found out the train was now departing at 10:45am. We could’ve spent more time at that little hidden morning market, after all – oh well.
I went off to use the toilet at the other end of the station platform, leaving Jake and Matt with my bag – and my wallet. The platform was dotted with families sitting and eating, food vendors, news paper sellers, fruit sellers, toy sellers… such an interesting sight.
Once I’d finished using the toilet I went to leave and was met with a tiny frail woman making smooching noises at me to get my attention, beckoning me to pay her money for using one of the filthiest, foul-smelling toilets of this entire trip to date. I motioned “no money” to her and walked away whilst she made even louder smooching noises at me. It was quite a comical situation, in my head.
I still don’t really understand this concept that seems to be found all over Asia, where you must pay to use the public toilets. Someone sits all day outside toilet blocks that are more often than not beyond filthy, putrid, foul smelling and covered in urine and shit. Squatting over a poo-covered hole in the ground whilst trying not to touch any surface, contract any disease or vomit from the stench, I wonder why I need to fork out money for someone to do nothing. Seeing as there is no water to flush, no toilet paper to use, and very clearly no cleaner working, I see no reason to pay. Perhaps if the toilets were kept in a useable condition that didn’t pose a threat to my health – and my life – I might be a little more willing to hand over money. Furthermore, whilst I have to pay to inhale toxic waste, men are quite happy to shit freely over the side of the train platform or urinate on the toilet block wall. Rant over.

On the train, which cost us just 1200 kyat ($1.20 AU) for the three hour round trip, we sat back in clean seats and watched the life of local Burmese move past. It was incredibly fascinating to see life around Yangon: little markets set up on train station platforms, religious aspects of every day life, monks riding trains (one monk in particular took a liking to us three), locals carrying all sorts of goods, little children forever smiling and waving at us – and lots of adults too. We took the train to simply see the people and life here and seeing as the train moved at a walking – jogging pace for most of the journey, we were able to get some fantastic views and photos. We really were able to see a great deal and enjoy the slow paced journey.

With the sun shining, I moved to the open train doorway and sat on the steps with my feet dangling out of the train. It was a really amazing feeling – I felt so free and calm; the heat of the sun and the cool breeze from the slow-moving train was brilliant. I’ve never felt so free as during this Asian Adventure, and this moment sticks out in my memory.
From the train steps I was offered a full view of the sights, scenery, homes, villages, markets and people. The locals smiled at me and I waved to the children who took delight in calling out “hello.”

The train ride was great, really, and very unique to Myanmar in my opinion.
Walking back into town, the three of us went to Lucky Seven Tea House where we ordered tea: the “little sweet” tea, not the “diabeties tea,” although we were still under some threat from the amount of sugar.

Eventually we said goodbye to Matt who left for the airport shortly after – it had been fantastic travelling with him this past week and we had a lot of fun together.

We stopped off for lunch at a street food stall where I ordered a Burmese food known as hot-pot mee shay noodles. I watched as the young boy added various noodles, vegetables, quail eggs, tofu and miscellaneous edible items into a clay pot, added sauces and spices and then bought it to the boil over an open flame. This dish is one of my favourite dishes in Myanmar, as long as it is from a street stall and not a restaurant.

We spent the afternoon flitting about; we tried to find Jacob a barber so he could get a beard trim but no luck – the barber was there, sitting outside his shop, but obviously just didn’t feel like working and put his feet up, telling us to “come back tomorrow.” If we were in India still, there would’ve been several street barbers within a 50 metre radius, all ready to go. Funny.
I like it.

Packing our backpacks for the final time in Myanmar, we prepared for our flight to Thailand tomorrow. It’s hard to believe our travels in Myanmar are now already over and tomorrow we’ll be meeting my brother and mother in Thailand.
It’s going so quickly – too quickly – but I just can’t work out how to slow the time down. Often I remind myself and am consciously aware of how incredible this moment is, this experience is, this adventure is, but I know for some reason I can’t ever fully comprehend what I’m doing and seeing until it’s in the past and I am looking back and reflecting upon ‘that moment from before…’

Already it’s mid-November – next month is December, the last month of 2013! – and I’m already starting to become a little anxious about going home to Melbourne. I have these worries about fitting back into a routine and an environment that will no doubt cause some sort of ‘reverse culture shock.’
Asia has become so normal, so comfortable, so convenient and so continuously exciting and entertaining; it feels so… well, it’s become my every day and I really love the mess, the noise, the smells, the chaos, the hectic traffic and the unorganised-everything. Asia is free spirited in so many ways – disorderly and full of odd and strange things, shocking things and enthralling things… I think – I know – I’ll miss this madness that makes me smile.

I think what I adore most about the life style here is the continual blatantly obvious differences between my own culture and the Asian cultures. I’m always being entertained, educated, thrilled, excited, confronted, challenged, questioned; I am always aware of how out of my depths I am in so many ways yet so conscious of how much I thrive in the different environments I am in. I love the lifestyle I am living currently and how much I am learning and the way my thoughts, opinions and attitudes are forming. I love the atmosphere, the people, the street food stalls and tiny plastic chairs, the six-times-a-day cups of tea, the constant moving and changing. I love our ‘the night before’ packing sessions and dumping our bags in the next destination once we arrive, and I feel completely settled even though every few days we’re on the move again. This part of the world suits me in so many ways and, really, I feel so happy to know that I’ve truly embraced it all.

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Varanasi: Confronting India: 13 – 15.09.2013

Varanasi is known to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, and also the holiest city in the world. Each of these statuses is impressive on it’s own, and it’s no wonder this magnificent and mysterious city attracts so many domestic and international tourists, on top of the millions of pilgrims and devotees. Love it or hate it, this chaotic, dirty, ancient and incredibly religious city is not for the feint hearted. Every one of our senses was heightened here in Varanasi – we could see, feel, hear and smell the life, death and deep religion surrounding us; there was not one moment outside the confines of our guest house that we weren’t immersed in Varanasi’s captivating magic. We could see it in the people and the buildings, along the ghats and in the river. We could feel it surrounding us as if the deep religion was physically moving; it was in the air and on our skin. We could hear it through the chanting and the temple bells, the early morning rituals and the evening puja. We could smell it in the smoke and in the incense.

We’d been warned about the intensity of the touters here, but that wasn’t actually the biggest challenge for us during our stay here. Varanasi is shockingly filthy; the lane ways are so polluted and covered in waste – we could not take a single step without trying to dodge something nasty, and the smells were often so overwhelming I frequently had to cover my mouth and nose with my scarf. The filth, pollution, rubbish and faeces was something quite difficult to overlook, however, my immense fascination and surprising love for this extraordinary city was thankfully ,much greater than my disgust.

We arrived into Varanasi very early; walking out of the station into a cloud of smoke, hopping into a tuk tuk and then wizzing through the early morning city buzz, we arrived in front of a place that did not look like Mishra Guesthouse… because, it wasn’t. Very quickly we were introduced to Varanasi’s old city’s  sprawling maze of tiny laneways that dart and change and turn at every possible corner, and seemed to be brimming with shit, cows and rubbish.

Dodging and near-missing the never-ending mountains of cow, dog and no doubt human poo, whist struggling to breathe in the scent of human excrement infused with smoke, we followed our driver around corners and through lanes and arch ways, squishing past enormous cows, stray dogs, small shrines and images of Ganesh. At one point, two massive cows cornered me and I was forced to step back into a pile of shit in order to avoid being crushed between them both, which was a little bit scary considering the size of their bodies and horns.

Welcome to Varanasi.

I was so excited to be here.

We arrived at our guest house, dumped our bags and immediately headed to the roof top – Varanasi and the river Ganges was a view I was desperate to see, and one that’s now imprinted in my mind forever. The smokey haze covering the massive sprawl of buildings that curve around the Ganges and ghats was spectacular in its own right; like nothing I had ever seen before. Below me, tiny boats were waiting to set out on the river and monkeys pranced between temple roofs. I could hear the city swinging into action – the ding of cyclists and the horns of motorbikes, people talking and yelling and the sound of temple bells ringing out.
We were staying very close to Manikarnika Ghat, the burning ghat, and the stream of smoke billowing up from the cremation sites was constantly smouldering; a sight we got strangely used to during our short stay. It was a lot to take in on our first view, but over the next few days we spent a lot of time up on that roof top pondering the scene.

The mother Ganges was a sight to be seen – a massive body of water peeping out of the morning haze and smoke, people living and breathing around her pulsing heart. People were washing and bathing, performing religious rituals that are too complex for me to understand,  rinsing away their sins and empowering themselves as they immersed their bodies in her waters.
The mother Ganges river is sacred to Hindus, often I’ve heard it is considered the “lifeline” for the millions of people who live and depend on her for their daily needs. She washes more than 60,000 bodies every day, and to bathe in her waters is considered an honour and a privilege.
Furthermore, to die in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges guarantees the deceased a life in heaven, and is a devout Hindu’s greatest wish. Those cremated here are released from the cycle of life, death and re-birth – in other words, those who die here better be done with living, as this is the final stop before heaven. The burning ghats smoulder and burn 24 hours a day.
We are told there are many hospices here in Varanasi – people come from all over India to live out their last years, months, weeks and days here in order to die here and be cremated; their bones and ashes then thrown into the river.
It is a great honour to be cremated here, but there are certain people who can not be burned, and instead are thrown straight into the Ganges. We were told that children under a certain age (we were told a few different ages, between 2 and 10 years old – I’m not sure what is correct), pregnant women, holy men, monks, suicide victims, cobra bite victims and those with leporacy can not be burned, and instead are thrown into the river, and either sink to the bottom, tied to a rock, or break free and float as they decompose naturally.

Whilst Hindus consider the river Ganges to be pure, and purifying, it is apparently one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In Varanasi alone, we were told that around 200 – 250 million litres of raw, untreated sewerage flows into the Ganges every day, which is a pretty shocking statistic and one I can not comprehend. With this in mind, I decided against taking a holy dip.

Our days in Varanasi became a bit of a blur – we spent most of our time walking through the old city’s maze of lanes and narrow alleys, dodging cows, motorbikes, rubbish and poo. The old city was a never ending exploration; we continually got lost and stumbled upon something new, fascinating, surprising, shocking or delicious.
The laneways are literally pulsating with religion and spirituality – temples and shrines can be found at every turn, images and statues of the various gods and prints of Ganesh mark almost every doorway of every ancient home. The people of Varanasi are so deeply religious, I found it incredible and fascinating to see them and watch their dedication and devotion. They dress in religious clothing, many people with markings on their foreheads or freshly shaven heads – one tuft on the back-top of their head remaining. The practices seemed so varied, the clothing, the rituals, the markings… We wandered about the city trying to take everything in, understanding so little of what was surrounding us; the complex rituals and practices are difficult to comprehend, and there appears to be so much happening in the one place that it was hard to grasp. The religion surrounding me felt so huge – something so unbelievably large – that I occasionally felt overwhelmed by it all. I wanted to know everything, why people were doing what they were doing, why they were dressed in such a way, what they were making, offering, saying… I wanted to know the meanings and traditions and beliefs behind the practices; I wanted to understand, rather than just walk past. By the end of our three days here, I was left with so many questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.
Within this mix of religion, life and death intertwined; Varanasi is both full of life and full of death. People are everywhere – as are cows – and so are the dead. The first time I saw a body being carried through the streets, the last time, and every time in between shocked me to my core and I could not comprehend what I was seeing before my eyes. We were confronted by death several times on a daily basis during our stay in Varanasi, and it was something I never quite felt comfortable facing.

When we weren’t wandering through the old city, or through the main chowk area, we were usually at the Blue Lassi shop – an institution in Old City that every tourist will know and probably have fond memories of. It was a fantastic place to meet people from every part of the world; we spent many hours over our three days chatting and listening and meeting new people, including one obnoxious Australian man who enjoyed beginning debates with every one he came into contact with, then attacking them, insulting their country, and backing them into a corner until he “won” the argument by force. He appeared to enjoy interrupting everyone, talking over the top of people and squashing everyone else’s opinions. Although he didn’t vote in Australia’s recent election – due to the fact he was on holiday – he took great pleasure and went to great lengths to insult Jake and myself for not voting, and enjoyed pointing that out to all those around us. He had a strong view about travel blogs and anyone who is “stupid” (his words) enough to waste time blogging or reading them, so it’s safe to say he wont be reading this.
Blue Lassi became our second home – we usually had breakfast and dinner here, and sometimes, some incredible street food in between. This tiny hole in the wall shop served up fruit filled lassis and a view of the lane way that was always crammed with the living and the dead. We often occupied the front two seats in the window sill of the shop, watching the pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists try to negotiate the spaces between each other, along with the cows, dogs, children, men using the wall as a urinal, chai wallas and food sellers, non-spatially aware tourists and piles of shit. Furthermore, we listened to grieving men as they chanted “Rama nama satya hai” and watched as they passed, waving incense and carrying the bodies of their family members through the streets. Seeing the men carrying the bamboo stretchers, the bodies of their loved ones covered in flowers and gold, red, orange, pink and white cloths, was something I never was quite able to comprehend. It felt so shocking and confronting and at the same time, so final and complete. For me to understand that in just a short while, these bodies would become nothing but ash and be released, in a literal and spiritual sense, into the holy Ganges, is very difficult. Death is not something I am used to being exposed to, but here in Varanasi it was a constant.
More than once during our stay, as we wandered through the lanes, we became caught up in a “traffic jam” of crowds of people and motorbikes, and stuck between a funeral procession. It is difficult to explain, but being unable to move away from the dead body that was held just centimeters from us was, for both Jacob and myself, quite a confronting and disconcerting experience.

We spent a lot of our time here walking the streets and exploring the sights. We were staying very close to the burning ghats, and just once took the opportunity to go and see the cremations taking place. We’re still not sure how we feel about the whole experience, and if we felt ‘right’ going to view the cremations, but we were curious and fascinated by the religious and spiritual practices that make Varanasi so famous world-wide.

By the burning ghats, there are several areas where wood is stored and sold. Massive scales weigh the wood, and there are different types of wood at different costs. There is a “fine art” to using the right amount of wood to completely consume and burn a body (it takes around 300kgs of wood – sandalwood being the preference, and the most expensive), and it was fascinating to see the wood being carried and sold and weighed on the scales. If you can imagine how much wood is needed for just one body, and the number of bodies burned daily here in Varanasi, it’s understandable but hard to comprehend that wood is bought in from up to 1000kms away.

There appeared to be two main sights where cremations were taking place at Manikarnika Ghat – up some stairs to a higher mezzanine level, and on the banks of the Ganges. We were told that up to 200 bodies are burned at this ghat each day.
We climbed some steps, very unsure of where was acceptable and allowed, cautious of touters and scammers, and trying to remain respectful. We stood for a few minutes above the cremation sites, the smoke burning our eyes, watching the burning taking place on the banks of the Ganges, and what I saw will remain with me forever.

Whilst it’s impossible to explain what I felt there as I watched, I understood what was happening to be deeply spiritual; that these bodies and souls were now at peace and on their way to heaven.

The cremation process is a complex one – steeped in religious rituals and beliefs – and one I became fascinated by. Wood is bought by family and friends for the deceased to be cremated upon. How wealthy the purchaser is determines what kind of wood, and how much of it, can be bought. The poorer people may not be able to afford enough wood to completely reduce a body to ash, which results in remaining body parts being thrown into the river. Those who can afford more, can choose where their loved ones are cremated along with other important religious considerations. It costs between around $10 – 70 to burn a body, as we were told.
Bodies of the deceased are wrapped in a simple cloth, then covered in coloured cloths with individual meanings. Before a body is placed onto the wood to be burned, the coloured cloth is removed and the body dipped into the Ganges then smothered with ghee.
It takes around 3 – 4 hours for a body to completely reduce to ash, and male family members and friends observe the process whilst Doms – members of the “untouchable” cast – stoke the fire to keep it burning. If the skull explodes during the burning process, it is considered lucky, as the soul can escape to heaven. If not, the skull is cracked by a family member – usually the eldest son. Quite often, a hip or chest bone remains, and together with the ash, they are thrown into the Ganges when the cremation is complete.
No women are allowed to attend the cremation ceremonies; only male family members watch the bodies turn to ash. I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning for this is as we were told two different stories: firstly, that no crying is allowed at the cremation sites as it will damage the soul on it’s way to heaven, and secondly, that many years ago, the female family members of the deceased – particularly the wives – would occasionally be overcome with grief and throw themselves onto the fire. To stop this, women were banned.

Besides the five or six cremation sites (it was difficult to tell as the cremations were at very different stages of burning) bodies still on the bamboo stretchers were left on piles of rubbish and cloth and dirt, waiting to be burned. Cloth piles were everywhere, and the monsoon rains had left mounds of sediment and filth along the entire ghats. Amongst this mess, I watched as cows chewed slowly on wilting flower garlands and men with giant metal bows sifted through the mud, river water and human ash, searching for gold and jewellery once worn by the deceased.

We didn’t stand there for too long, a few minutes was enough, and we climbed down the steps and through the masses of people and piles of wood, back away from the ghats.

One evening, we attempted to take an evening boat ride on the Ganges – without a torch and due to the mighty monsoon, the ghats were flooded and we walked through filth, mud and water (which I can only assume came from the Ganges and was posing a serious threat to my health). At the ghats, hundreds of people were bathing, brushing their teeth, washing their clothing or simply standing or sitting around observing. Our boatman walked us to where our boat was meant to be, then left and didn’t bother to return – after ten or so minutes standing on the banks of the Ganges in the dark, whilst men stared and I fretted for my health, we left. Squelching back to our room, we headed straight for the bathroom tap where we washed the holy filth from our feet and let the water and soap absorb into our skin for the next half hour or so. I prayed we’d make it through.

The next morning we woke early and made a second attempt to take a boat ride on the Ganges. This time there was light; enough to see where we were stepping and make a decent attempt to keep our feet Ganges-free. There was eight of us in total on the boat, and the poor boatman struggled to paddle whilst our guide explained much of what I now know about the Ganges and Hindu cremation rituals. As we watched the sun rise over the river and the pilgrims performing their morning rituals, the cremations came into full view and once again, I felt confronted by my surroundings. This was such a different world to what I knew.

Our guide answered happily whatever questions were thrown at him, but it was most shocking when one of the Spanish tourists asked whether or not was true that people actually drink the Ganges water.
Cupping his hands, he leaned over the side of the boat, collected some water and poured it down his throat. Meanwhile, I almost vomited into the body of water he’d just drunk from. The same body of water that collects hundreds of millions of litres of sewerage every day, where the bodies of deceased people and animals decompose, where waste from countless sources and ash from thousands of bodies is dumped, and where water-borne diseases are rampant. He drank from one of the worlds most polluted and highly infectious rivers, yet, somehow, he was still alive. He explained, revealing his tiny biceps, that “I believe this is my mother Ganga. If I believe I drink her, she make me strong. If I believe I drink water, I sick.”
Still reeling with shock, I told him that “regardless of what I believe, if I drink, I die.”
We continued the rest of our boat ride, which was really a highlight of our stay in Varanasi, and I continued to fear the possible sight of a floating body.

On our final day in Varanasi I woke with a cold, feeling pretty rotten. We took a walking tour with a guide from our hotel which was 100 rupees very well spent. He took us to some very magnificent religious sites – temples, ashrams, shrines and mosques – and explained in detail about various religious practices, gods, beliefs, and the buildings themselves. He toured us through lanes and alleys we’d not yet discovered during our stay, and we saw a very different side of the old city that was fascinating.

We departed Varanasi on the evening of the 15th at 7:40pm – for once a reasonable train departure time! It meant a final dinner at Blue Lassi after our walking tour, where a shockingly high number of bodies (for me – not for the shop owner who said that’s very normal) were carried past our window sill.

At around 5:30pm we collected our luggage and headed for the train station. Walking through the narrow lane ways with our packs bulging, it was difficult to manoeuvre ourselves amongst the cows, motorbikes, pedestrians, rubbish and excrement, and even a funeral procession. We made it to the ‘top’ of the old city where the chowk began, and were instantly pounced on by several keen auto drivers who screamed and shouted until Jacob got them in order. It was hilarious to watch him holding an “auction” of sorts, attempting to find the lowest offer to take us to the station. The drivers were all so eager to get our sale, and one even resorted to holding his hand in the air like a school child in order to win us over. He did in the end, and we got into his tuk tuk and said goodbye to Varanasi, but not before a police officer stopped him for whatever reason and we were left sitting alone whilst a thousand people stared and the policeman looked very angry.

Eventually we made it to the station; we ate some naan at a very dodgy looking local place and then boarded our train – our very last overnight train in India. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved in some ways; whilst I love the Indian Railways, climbing up to my top berth bunk is becoming too familiar and worrying about my safety and my belongings all night is getting tiresome.

As we sat on our seats, an Israeli girl joined us, and I was grateful for one more tourist – and a female! – in our cabin.
Whilst we sat, waiting for our train to move, a small child shoved his hands through the open window with a metal dish and spent a very long time clanging it against the metal window frame asking us for money. I felt very distressed by this situation, and again, was grateful this was the last train journey for now. We were soon joined by five more men in our 8 bed cabin, who proceeded to stare at both me and the Israeli girl for the duration of our trip – what would turn out to be a whole 16 hours. Beside our 8 sleeper cabin, still in our view, two more boys proceeded to stare and photograph both us girls on their phones, until Jacob gave them such a nasty glare they put away their phones… at least until the Israeli girl climbed up to her bunk, at which point they both took their phones back out and quickly snapped a couple of pictures of her bottom.
At that point, I was so relieved that this was our last train trip, and I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

As the train began to move from the platform, much later than 7:40pm, people began to lock up their belongings with chains and sellers moved amongst the carriages selling drinks and newspapers. We bought a drink and a paper – the drink smelled like poison and we didn’t drink it, and the boy next to me spent a good hour leaning way too close to me, pretending to read my news paper whilst I kept nudging him away from me. Now I was feeling more than uncomfortable.
I quickly moved over to Jake’s side of the berth as soon as the fat man in our carriage (who had the world’s most disgusting and terrifying feet!) got up to use the bathroom. I’ve learned by now that on Indian trains it’s every man for himself, so I stole his seat and hid next to Jacob, wishing we could get off. Sitting there was safer in some aspects, but also put me in full view of every man in our carriage, and I spent a good hour or so being stared at by at least six pairs of eyes. I was now hating this train ride, and wanted to get off.

Feeling horrible, I was momentarily relieved for the police presence that walked through our carriage. “Oh good” I thought. Then I saw their massive guns, and wondered why they were walking towards Jacob, the Israeli girl and myself. Each one of us was handed a piece of paper, a pen and a form, something I’d never experienced before on the Indian Railways – I wondered what was going on. The police stood over us, and I proceeded to read the piece of paper, which informed me in poorly worded English that basically, this specific train journey (Varanasi – Delhi) is renowned for intentional druggings and theft of tourists, and that it is in my best interests to decline any food and drink offered to me, as well as to lock up my belongings very securely. We then had to sign a waiver form saying we read and understood the form, which felt a little bit like I was signing my life away. By this point, I was terrified. Whilst I sat their quietly shitting myself, the fat man with foul feet put down his bed, and then lay down opposite me with one eye open, staring at me. The next five or so minutes went something like this… “Jacob, he’s sleeping with one eye open, staring at me… Jacob. He’s still staring. Okay, I’m getting scared, he’s still staring. Jake, he’s still staring, I hate this. Okay, I hate this, I really hate this. Oh fuck, they’re all staring…! Okay, that guy just took a photo of me! Jake! Jake! Jake – seriously – are you sleeping!? How!?…”

Eventually, I climbed up to my bunk (with Jake standing directly behind me so no one could photograph my ass) and lay there fretting. Below me, I could still see staring eyes, and I knew it was going to be a really, really long train ride. Any relief I had felt about this being my last train ride had been replaced with fear, and the wish that this ride would simply be over.

Varanasi was well and truly behind me now, and Delhi was just a few – very long – hours away.

From Mumbai to Udaipur: 20 -21.08.13

It’s funny how India has a way of making you love her one minute, and then curse her the next, only to forgive her moments later, and then suddenly be reminded of why you were cursing her earlier!

We woke early and spent some time this morning with our couch surfing host before we said goodbye and left her home. Saying goodbye felt as though we were saying goodbye to an old friend, and driving away in our tuk tuk was bittersweet. Amazing.

Stopped in heavy traffic, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than eight leaned into our open tuk tuk, waving a distressed and malnourished looking baby in our face, demanding money and food. The traffic did not move, and the young girl continued to poke and scratch hard at my leg while the baby wailed. It was awful, and I just felt so helpless. A few rupees was not going to change anything, and we spent the rest of the trip in silence feeling helpless and saddened.

We arrived at Andheri station, and with our bulging packs on back and front, we wondered how the hell we were meant to get into one of the carriages without being crushed by the crowds. The train station was brimming with people of all sorts, and every train ride was an experience in itself. Every time, we met people who were kind and willing to help, and others who enjoyed spending the journey staring at us with avid curiosity.

Two trains arrived, thousands of people went mad throwing themselves either into or out of the packed carriages, and we were still standing on the platform considering the option of a taxi. As a third train pulled in and I saw the ladies kicking and scratching their way on and off the carriage, and I walked over to Jake and said “not happening.” Instead, we climbed onto the normal carriage and stood pack to pack, surrounded by a hundred plus men and their staring eyes.

We took a taxi from Churchgate to Victoria Station, after struggling to find a driver who would turn on his meter. We’ve gotten good at this now.
Our plan was to drop our packs at VT Station and spend the day exploring before our train late tonight. Our train tickets from Mumbai to Udaipur still hadn’t been delivered by the tourist company that we’d paid a substantial sum to, and we were getting anxious.

As we walked towards the cloak room, I had the thought that “how fantastic, things seem to be actually running smoothly today! India is working in our favour today… something surely must be about to go wrong…” and then things turned to shit.
At VT we were not allowed to store our packs without a ticket in hand. Trudging around the area trying to find an internet café, we were almost crushed by a group of market stall holders who all of a sudden stopped what they were doing, madly rushed to pack everything they were selling into tarps, tied their goods together, grabbed their cart handles and got moving! “Police” said one local when we saw us obviously wondering what going on.
We stopped for seconds too long and touters tried to get us to go to their hotels – I guess our packs made us look like we’d just arrived, and our disheveled looks made us seem like easy targets.

Well after 1pm, checking our email at a cyber café, the tickets we were meant to have received on Sunday, and then on Monday, and now by 12pm today were still not sitting in our inbox. A quick call to the tourist company infuriated me. This morning they’d said the tickets would be emailed by 12pm, but on the phone they said we needed to come into the shop to collect them. When I asked why they’d said this only now, they ummed and aah, and then made up all these ridiculous contradicting excuses. When I asked why they had not been sent yesterday when they were meant to be, more contradicting excuses. I was furious, knowing now we would have to spend more time and more money to get the tickets. The response was uncaring and my anger was ignored.

We then spent forever trying to find a taxi driver who would not only take us to Colaba to get the tickets, but would also use the meter. Dropped off in Colaba centre, it took us ages to find the place again; no taxi driver knew where to go, so we’d had to walk – getting lost along the way.

Looking over our tickets that were finally in our hands, we saw we weren’t even booked from VT station! We were leaving from Bandra Terminus, at 11:25pm. We had a lot of time to kill.

We found a taxi who took us to Chowpatty beach along Marine Drive, where we stood eating delicious kulfi (Indian-style, frozen-hard ice cream that melts in your mouth) from a stand-up outside eatery that was ‘famous’ amongst locals. Bulging packs on back and front, we used our front packs as our table whilst the locals stared and laughed, and we came to the realization that these packs will be sitting on our shoulders for the next 8 hours or so. There was no cloak room to leave them and we were too far from Bandra, with little time left to see the things we wanted; it was going to be a long day.

We walked, buzzing from the kulfi, to the once home of Ghandi, to learn more about this incredible man who was and is SO important to India and its people. The museum/home was wonderful and we gained a great deal of understanding and insight. Yep; we’ve been to Ghandi’s house.

Walking out of the station, our packs were feeling heavier and heavier. A man on the street greeted us and as per usual, an offer to help immediately arose suspicion in us. We hate that we feel this way but so frequently we are offered “help” in return for a fee, or a lot of inconvenience. He was, however, very helpful and explained to us the best way to get to the dhobi ghats – the 140 year old open laundry which is a famous sight in Mumbai. Hailing a taxi for us he told us the driver would use the meter, but when he walked away the driver tried to make us pay a ridiculous luggage fee – bull shit! We’d taken enough taxis in the last few hours alone to know he was just trying to get some more money, and we walked away. The helpful man returned and told us not to pay anything more than what the meter read, and said something in Hindi to the driver which included “Ghandi House” – I can only assume what he said, but the driver immediately dropped the luggage fee completely and was very kind to us from there on in. Awesome.

Dhobi Ghat was not what we expected, but was fascinating none the less. A sight that, in this world, is one of a kind. Over a 1000 open troughs are used daily to wash tons of dirty Mumbai laundry, and it takes some serious strength to wash, scrub, beat and rinse by hand.

We had grand plans to visit Mahalaxmi temple and the Haji Ali Mosque in the sea, but the weight bearing down on our backs, shoulders, knees and ankles from a day of wearing our pack almost non-stop was too much. We trudged back along the path whilst a man followed us only inches away, continually asking us to please pay him 50 rupees so he could take us to some place. He kept saying “50 rupee I take you there”. We ended up stopping in the hope he would go away, seeing as our harmony of “no, no, no thanks, no, no, we don’t want to go there, no, no, we are just walking, no, please go away, no, stop following us, no, we don’t need a tuk tuk, no, no, no, what do you actually want!?” had not previously worked. He hung around asking for money and to take us with him, but eventually got tired when we started asking passers by to get him to leave us alone.
We ended up taking a train from Mahalaxmi back to Churchgate.
The train ride was an experience in itself, in particular when a hijra with a 5 o’clock shadow, dressed in a sari, boarded the train and demanded money from every passenger on board. Hijras are transgendered individuals who are apparently considered to be of low class in Indian society, and supposedly carry a magic power; they often make their money from begging or demanding money from people on trains and public spaces in return for a blessing of fertility, and curse those who refuse to cough up. As a hijra boarded, we watched as every passenger immediately fetched some rupees and immediately paid for a ‘blessing.’ We refused to pay, and had to put up with a lot of mumbling, poking, prodding, stares and finally, a hand clap – which we believe to be our curse – before the hijra moved away. The look from the locals was one of absolute shock and disbelief. Mums, if you’re reading – sorry, you can no longer expect  grandchildren from us in the future: we’ve been cursed by a man in a sari and are apparently now infertile.

Freshly cursed, we thought we deserved to treat ourselves to dinner at a place we’d been wanting to visit – Samrat – where we were told we could find the most amazing Gujurati Thali.
350 rupee thali was a real splurge for our backpacker budget, but we treated ourselves and we were not disappointed; the meal was incredible and the constant filling of each little silver dish was a thrill for our senses. We literally rolled out of the restaurant, our pack belts tight, making it hard for us to breathe.

The train from Churchgate to Bandra Station was jam packed and with our bulging packs, I think we may have knocked a few people out as we shoved our way to the doorway as we reached our destination.
Jumping off a moving train: tick.
We didn’t jump off so much as get pushed off by the surge of commuters. I had barely enough time to grab my packs, let alone put them onto my back, and a young boy showed concern that my day pack was behind me and not in front. I love Indian trains, and the people – those who aren’t trying to scam you – are incredibly helpful.

I got the feeling that getting to Bandra station would not be the end of our journey – it seemed too easy. And of course, it was not so simple, we had to struggle with our packs past begging and prodding hands to then fight with way too many tuk tuk drivers who refused to use the meter, and wanted to charge us 80 rupees or more for a 1km distance, which we are fully aware costs 15 rupee.

Eventually, a helpful stranger found us one and as we drove past the other rip-off drivers staring blankly at us, we felt super pleased with ourselves that we had not succumbed to their tricks. Yessss.
At Bandra Terminus, the driver handed back 5 rupees change from the 20 rupee note we’d given him! I felt like leaning over and giving the driver a hug when he gave us the correct change and didn’t try to cheat us purely because we’re foreigners. Strangely, it begins to feel like such a success when people don’t try and cheat us out of money simply because they feel they can and because they want to.

Bottles of water purchased and out stomachs full to bursting point, we brushed our teeth and spat onto the rail tracks amongst locals who were taking a shit, hurling rubbish, spitting pan and using the tracks as a urinal.
Our Bandra – Udaipur Express rolled into the station around 11pm, and checking our names against paper charts taped to the carriages, we finally found our berths and walked into our home for the next 16 hours…

Our 8 sleeper berth consisted of two big families with lots of children and one crying baby.
Ear plugs in, I took the top bunk and Jake took the bottom. Backpacks as pillows and day packs chained to the walls, we lay back and fell asleep, waking to the occasional jolt and baby crying.

I woke to Jake offering me a cup of chai, which we continued to order regularly for the rest of the train trip. We spent our day reading, sipping chai and staring out the window into the rolling scenery. The greenery stuck out as the cool air and drizzling rain pricked against our skin. We watched as we passed farmers herding their cattle, men in brightly coloured turbans and women in their saris contrasting against the greenery, and the occasional squatter taking a dump on the railway lines.

We passed areas that were completely covered in rubbish and waste; rats, pigs and dead animals dotted amongst the putrid smelling rubbish. The occasional waft of urine broke through the air that otherwise smelled fresh and cool. Sometimes, it was hard to grasp what we were actually looking at.

A hijra boarded the train this afternoon train and again we were asked for money which we refused to pay; although no clapping this time – maybe he could tell we had already been cursed. I find it astounding that people are so willing to hand money over to a well dressed, bejewelled man in a sari who apparently has magic powers, whilst there are people are suffering and starving on the streets. It’s yet another mystery of India that we will probably never understand.

The family in our berth spent their day eating, hocking and spitting, and throwing rubbish out of my open window. At one point, a man from our berth who was chatting to us saw us finish our chai and encouraged Jake to throw the empty cups out the window. Every time another piece of waste was thrown, my heart skipped a beat and I fought to hide my angst; the litter and pollution here is a hard pill for us to swallow. At the end of our 16 hour journey, we had several little paper cups stuffed in our bags, in the hope that somewhere, somehow, there would be an actual rubbish bin that wasn’t just part of the land scape.

Late afternoon I woke suddenly, and wiping the drool from my mouth, realised the train was empty and still. We were finally in Udaipur, the North of India. The next part of our journey was about to begin; a new place, a new state, a new experience waiting to unfold.

During our train travels we had changed our plans and our travel route, rendering our pre-booked train tickets no longer useful. We decided at Udaipur station, since we were already there, that we should spend some time planning the dates and booking our tickets (and cancelling the one’s we’d already booked). With our route decided we locked in some dates, and it then took us more than two hours to book our tickets.

First we had to find the reservation office which was hidden away, where I joined a queue “for tourists, women alone, people with TB, cancer or disabilities.” Problem was, although the sign said open until 8pm, the staff had somehow disappeared. Instead, the head honcho man told me to go back to the station, “inquire first”, then come back to him. I wasn’t sure what we had to inquire about, but I spent a good half hour trying to fight for the attention of one female staff member whose job it was to deal with a hundred interrupting people at once, who obviously did not understand the concept of a queue or the idea of “wait your turn”. Or, maybe I don’t understand the concept of booking train tickets in India. Actually, the latter is completely true, but then again, so is my first point.
Trying to get her to look at the eight different forms I’d filled out was hard enough, trying to talk to her through the glass and over the voices of several other boys who shoved in front of me was harder, and trying not to get trampled to death was almost impossible. Personal space doesn’t often seem to exist here in India; neither do manners, patience or queues. Indian’s seem to take it to the extreme; it feels like it’s everyone for themselves, and slowly I am learning that if I want to get something done, I need to forget my manners and shove and push my way to the front.

So with my forms filled out and a heap of dates approved, it was back to the reservation office where the head honcho told me to just “go to the front of the queue.” I looked over to the two lines of people (all men) formed in front of two reservation counters, where about 15 or so people were waiting in each line. I couldn’t bring myself to simply shove my way to the front, so I waited and waited whilst the man behind me shoved his motorbike helmet into my back, trying to make the line move quicker.

At the front of the queue finally, I guiltily pushed my seven booking forms and three tickets under the glass towards the ticket man who had one very well styled mustache framing one very obvious scowl. He let out a deep sigh and threw my tickets to the bench, typing what seemed to be the length of a thesis into his computer before speaking.
Eventually he hurled my pre-booked tickets back at me and told me to “write cancel” on them.
So I did.
“Write cancel” he told me again.
“I have.”
“No. Write cancel! Here!” he exclaimed, pointing to where I’d written “cancelled.”

Eventually he pointed me over to the head honcho’s office and out of the queue, where I was forced to beg for assistance.

Eventually I gathered that I needed to fill out a specific cancellation form, which then took another 20 minutes or so because there was no obvious explanation or procedure available.
Walking up to the front of the queue of men, the head honcho was nice enough to get me seen to right away (almost), much to the protests of the men waiting in line. Angry mustache ticket guy snatched my cancellation forms, sighed again, and proceeded to commence writing his thesis again…

3000 odd rupees later and seven tickets in our hands, we were officially booked up until mid-September, and are headed in the direction of Udaipur – Ajmer – Pushkar – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Bikaner – Jaipur – Agra – Lucknow… from there, we’ll head to Delhi but we’ll do a bit more planning before we book.

Finally, around 7pm, we departed the station and were quickly greeted by a well spoken tuk tuk driver. He assured us his hotel was the best (as is always the case) and offered to take us for 50 rupees. When I tried to ask for a meter, he explained “You’re in a new world now; forget Mumbai, we don’t use the meter here.” Yes, we are in a new world now.

I bartered with him and got the tuk tuk ride for free, and arriving at his hotel, we immediately decided to stay. 400 rupees has bought us an incredible, spacious and clean room, wifi, kind hosts and the best view I have ever seen.

We spent our evening on the rooftop restaurant eating curry and sipping Kingfisher beer whilst overlooking the old town and the lake of Udaipur under a sea of fairy lights.
It’s moments like these that help to erase any frustrations we’ve had, and remind us how absolutely incredible and beautiful this country is.

Udaipur marks a new ‘chapter’ in our trip, and we are so excited for what is to come.

Big Smoke India: 17 – 19.08.13

We arrived into Mumbai – the big smoke – stuck in a traffic jam, and after stepping off the bus after 10am, rather than the estimated 7:30am arrival time. The bus dropped us on a random street where cars raced past, buildings soared, dogs roamed and taxi drivers circled us.
We had no idea where we were, we had no idea where we were going, we had no idea where we were staying, and we had no idea who to trust. Excellent.

A driver in a camo-cloured doo-rag style hat hearded us into his taxi and drove us across the city to Colaba – the tourist and sight-seeing hub of Mumbai. He hid his meter with a dirty towel “because he has to” (for a reason he did not explain) and continually told me “do not worry about money, you always worrying about money, do not ask me about money, don’t worry, I don’t want any money, I not asking for any money”, which made me worry almost to bursting point. Of course, he wanted money, of course he charged us some ridiculous “luggage fee”, and of course, he took us to the most ridiculously priced, shit-box of a hotel/cell, where we were greeted by possibly the rudest Indian man in the world.
Whilst Jake stayed in the taxi, I went to check the room.The manager grunted at me that the room was 1200, and when I almost died of shock, he told me it was actually now 1500. Mumbai was a lot more expensive than we’d expected.
Back in the taxi, I weighed up our options with Jake, and the driver agreed I could barter the manager down.
Back up in the hotel again, I was now told the price was 1700. I’m still wondering why I didn’t walk away then and there, but instead I bartered to 1300 which was flatly refused, so my very generous driver offered 1400 – was he personally putting in that extra 100 for this cockroach infested cell? I doubted it, but the offer got accepted.
The driver left us with our bags and we trudged up the stairs, feeling as though we were about to enter into a contract we didn’t want to but were somehow unable to get away from.
Of course, without the driver by my side, the manager was even ruder and told us no air conditioning would be included in that price. I argued, and we walked away – and should’ve kept walking – but eventually Mr. Rude manager man had a change of heart and very generously let us stay for 1400… with air conditioning.

It was only after we had paid that we discovered stained sheets, cockroaches, and one single dirty, cigarette smelling towel. When I asked if we could please have a clean towel, and furthermore if we could have two, the manager almost screamed at me telling me it was clean. When I refused his answer, he angrily bought us a “clean” (still stained) towel, and grunted “one room, one towel.” Hmmm.

Out in Mumbai at last, we walked through Colaba and towards the gateway to India monument, past the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The architecture is incredibly beautiful here, absolutely stunning – our heads were in a constant craning state as we looked at the architecture towering above us, mouths open in awe.

We walked towards Leopold’s Café – one of the hard-hit locations in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and also the once local hang-out of the author of Shantaram  – I was keen to see if this establishment lived up to my imagination… On the way, we dropped into Reality Tours office, to book a tour of the Daravhi Slums. A few minutes later, we were walking briskly towards Churchgate Station to meet for our tour of the biggest slum in Asia, to see what “the real Mumbai is like” – apparently.

I still can’t quite work out how I feel bout visiting a slum as a tourist, but the tour company we went with pours a huge portion of it’s money back into the NGO it runs within the slum, which we were able to see in action. We went as a group of 6 along with a guide who met us at the station and took us on the local Mumbai train towards the slums. He explained to us “three stops before we need to prepare to get off the train. Lots of eople will be getting on and off very quickly and the train will only halt for 15, maybe 20 seconds.” … Oh, shit.

Surviving our first local Mumbai train, we walked over the bridge and down into what looked like a very normal, very action packed street going about daily business. Chai and food stalls and vendors, shops, businesses, buyers and sellers, traffic and people about everywhere… We were in the business district, and it is here that several huge export and import, as well as nation-wide products are made, cooked, sewn, created and recycled, turning over a profit of around $650 million USD annually.

We walked through the business district, and the recycling area first, where plastic comes from all over India – and the world! – to be recycled. The absolute sprawl and mounds of plastic that could be seen from the ground and from the roof top stretched so far and covered every surface, and I was in absolute shock at the…mess, maybe? I can’t even decribe what we saw. These incredible people work tirelessly, in very difficult conditions, and their business is non-stop.
We passed tailors and men dying materials to make saris and clothing – for men in one section, and for women in another.
We passed welders and people building machinery, working with metals and welders, barefooted and shirtless – without any sort of safety precautions or protection.
We passed bakers rolling tons of pastry dough, and women drying poppadoms on the slum floors that, eventually, will be exported world wide.
We passed leather workers who dry, treat and cure the leathers they receive and turn them into bags, wallets and everything else that will then eventually be stamped with Gucci and Prada stamps, exported, and sold for thousands in fancy shops.
We passed through the pottery area where thousands of clay pots were being turned and sitting to dry in the sun.
We walked through tiny, tiny alleyways with holes in the ground and electrical wires dangling dangerously low. The stench was sometimes overwhelming.
We worked our way through to the residential area, where children were keen to follow us – and put their hands in our pockets! The slums are alive with people; the tiny area of around 1.75square km is home to more than a million people! There is a Muslim section, and a Hindu section, and somehow, people manage to live together in such compact space like one big community.
The residential area made me both happy and sad – I think – I haven’t quite worked it out yet. People live in absolute mess – the smells are overwhelming in some parts, and we walked out into an open area where children were playing and walking bare footed amongst an absolute rubbish tip. The toilet block was making it hard for me to breathe, and the smell stung my eyes.
We spent the entire time we were there staring at our feet, watching each and every step – ensuring we did not stand in the muck and mess, the holes and putrid contents that continually covered the ground.
The tiny slum hut, one of which we were able to see empty, was smaller than my bedroom; a bathroom, a kitchen, a TV area, a living area, a bedroom, storage space… and five, six, seven people might occupy that area! No privacy, no space. Astounding.
But the people seem happy, and busy, and hard-working. Most of all, it feels like a community, even from an outsider perspective – you can simply see and observe it. I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it all, and what my thoughts are, but I’m happy we were able to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about a part of this world and the people in it.

The six of us on the tour took the train back to Churchgate Station together and spent the evening at Leopold’s. The bullet holes still fresh in the walls was a stark reminder of what happened here just a few years ago, and my head full of the words of Shantaram bought me right back to the dodgy wheelings and dealings that would’ve once happened, right there.

Having used our air conditioner to the maximum and after surviving the hoards of cockroaches, we checked out early and, like sleepy turtles, carried our backpack shells heavy on our backs. We wern’t allowed to leave them with Mr. Rude Guest House Manager.

Today, India and I clashed. It’s true. It was a build up, I think, of three weeks of (amongst a million other positive things) being frequently cheated, lied to, tricked, scammed, harassed, begged, and  ripped off.

Our morning was spent being lied to by various street touters and people offering “free tourist information.” After hours or messing around, being told one thing and then another, and then something else entirely, we ended up handing over a wad of cash for two train tickets to Udaipur which were then never given to us – instead, we’d receive them via e-mail apparently on Monday, the day before our train.

I was so upset at the fact that nothing seemed to be working here for us today; we’d been ripped off and harassed and furthermore, lied to continually, and booking tickets for trains seemed impossible. We left with no ticket, no receipt, a lighter wallet and the words of the tourist information guy saying “anything is possible in India if you put money under the table” ringing in our heads.  On the street, continually we were harassed by people wanting money, wanting to show us their hotel rooms, offers for weed, offers for taxis, offers to “help” us find a “nice something to wear”, shoe shining, ear cleaning, and more people claiming their office was the real tourist information centre. I was ready to scream. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the ‘process’ that we go through every day here in India, fighting off touts and tricksters, and sifting through lies to find the truth. I was tired of the fact that we have to be suspicious of everyone, and when a stranger happens to help us, we find it hard to believe they’re being genuine.
I was overwhelmed that to book a train took hours after hours, too many mixed messages and stories, and that people were happy to go above and beyond to hide important information and trick us. After three weeks of it almost continually, I was sick of this maddening bull shit.

Eventually, we ended up at VT station – apparently the biggest train station in Asia – the incredible station that we should’ve gone to first thing this morning. First floor, counter 52, a few forms and I was able to book our train tickets. Just. Like. That. No bull shit, no lies, no stories of why they will have to change the price, no poor treatment, rude comments or jumbled facts. The man just booked the dates and trains that I had written down and printed out the tickets for us. So this is the way to do it, hey?… Lesson finally learned.

From VT station, we booked a pre-paid taxi out to Andheri, where we were staying for the next 3 nights with a Couch Surfing Host. Our poor taxi driver then spent the next two or more hours dodging, weaving, or sitting motionless amongst a chaos of horns and impatient drivers. At one point I tried to count the number of ‘lanes’ of traffic: pointless – the traffic sprawled so far around our car that I had to give up, it was utter madness and it was a real thrill. Hello to the Mumbai I had imagined.

Eventually, we arrived at our Couch Surfing host’s home, where she welcomed us warmly and gave us a delicious home cooked Indian dinner. We took a tuk tuk later to a local shopping mall and she introduced us to Kulfi, a delicious Indian dessert.

Our second day in Mumbai was spent in fits of exhaustion and frustration, feeling as though we couldn’t handle – didn’t want to handle – India’s complexities any longer – but then it ended on a high. We knew that tomorrow could only be better.

Our third day in Mumbai was spent exploring Colaba a little bit further. Being Sunday, the trains were “not so busy” – meaning I was able to breathe slightly more easily, didn’t have to share the roof handle with another hand and didn’t have to fight with people in order to exit the train. The Mumbai trains are madness, but oddly enough we love them.

Arriving into Churchgate Station, we stepped out into the street to be immediately greeted by the bare bottom of a woman who’d just taken a decent sized poo in the middle of a busy main road. As if proud of her achievement, she stood – bare bummed – next to the pile of waste for way too long whilst I struggled to re-gain my composure.
We watched, sipping chai, as a Bollywood scene was being filmed in the street, and ignored the hassling touts – one of whom invited us to his cousin’s best friend’s sisters’ niece’s wedding somewhere in Rajisthan some time next month.
We admired art in a gallery, and even more outside where local artists were selling their paintings and were proud to show us their work. I adore moments like these.
We explored various shops and walked through the city area, visiting the local Colaba Market and avoiding another tout who was sure we’d love the clothing at his best friend’s wholesale shop.We had a fancy lunch at Delhi Dohbar, where I broke my vegetarian diet and ate some mutton.
Our afternoon was spent walking along Marine Drive, looking out over the Mumbai city scape and sky line. Chai vendors offered us chai and a woman with a monkey on a leash tried to get us to pay her for a dancing monkey show – which we very flatly refused.

Late evening we took another local Mumbai train back to Andheri, where we visited the local shopping mall. Tuk tuk drivers outside tried to charge us 150 rupees for the 20 rupee ride back to our host’s home, and refused to turn on the meter even though they have to normally. It was infuriating to be treated so unfairly, and I felt that frustrated feeling from the previous day returning. Eventually though, we found a driver who was happy to turn on his meter and took us safely home to our wonderful host and her handsome cat.

Our third day in Mumbai was a nice, easy going day; we didn’t really rush this morning, and spent our day in the outer suburbs away from the tourists. We’re so used to being the only whities these days; it’s starting to not phase us so much. Outside of the tourist area of Colaba, the people who spoke with us were friendlier and more interested in simply talking to us, rather than trying to take our money however possible.

We took a tuk tuk to the Andheri train station, where peak hour meant we were caught up amongst thousands of frantic commuters. The first train we attempted to board was so packed (to the point where people were hanging out the doors and along the side of the train!) we were not able to board. A young woman told me to get in the ladies carriage, and never attempt to take the men’s carriage… that meant Jake and I would be separated, and that worried me when we were about to attempt to get on – and would consequently have to eventually get off – the local Mumbai train.

As the train we needed pulled into the station, it was a sight to be seen – one I have difficulty describing. It was, simply put, a manic mess of chaos and crowds. Before the train can even completely stop, people are jumping off and attempting to jump on. As the train slows and finally stops, masses of people at every door have already started shoving, pushing, kicking and pulling; fighting their way into and out of the carriage. No order, no rules, every man for himself. It was madness, and the facial expressions and the way people behaved was shocking, to say the least. I was pushed, shoved and hearded into the ladies carriage by the kind young woman who then checked to make sure Jake was safely in the men’s compartment. So kind. Within the confines of the female carriage, I observed as every woman assessed the other – including many stares directed at me – often staring each other down in a manner that, more than once, made me feel self conscious.
When the train finally pulled into my destination, I was quick to learn I’d need to fight my way off. Along with every other woman pushing and kicking and shoving to get on – and off – I elbowed and shoved and escaped, free at last.

More help from locals saved us the hassle of trying to negotiate with trick tuk tuk drivers, and eventually we found one who was happy to use the meter to take us to the ferry landing, so we could head across the ‘creek’ (more like a massive lake!) to the Global Pagoda – a golden beautiful structure that was really impressive to see. People come here for 10 day meditation work shops which are apparently really highly regarded.
Arriving, I think we were just as impressed by the structure as we were by the fact that it was free to enter.
The area was beautiful and really impressive, and it was well worth the visit out there.
After slipping in the mud and falling hard on my bum, checking to see if anyone saw, then laughing about it for way too long, we took an empty ferry back over the creek and a tuk tuk back to the station, before catching a train back to Andheri.

This evening we were meeting our host at the local plaza to see a Bollywood movie, but arriving early, we decided we’d and spend some time in what turned out to the the worst (and most hilarious) excuse for an arcade.
We wanted to have a game of 10 pin bowling but only one of the 6 lanes was working. The other lanes were “maintenance,” according to the staff. We put 100 odd rupees onto an arcade game card and went to swipe a game for some good old fashioned fun… but quickly realised the game we had selected was “undergoing maintenance.” This was the same for the next game, and the next, and the next, and the next, and this went on throughout the entire arcade for all except one game – the basketball hoopy game. So, whilst laughing like lunaticks, we spent a happy few minutes playing the same one game; shooting flat basket balls into a hoop, cackling the entire time. At the end, we had acquired a whole 6 tickets, and seeing as there were only three different ‘prizes’ behind the massive glass counter for 50, 200 and 5000 tickets, we fortunately didn’t get any sort of tacky plastic souvenir.
Oh India, you make us smile.

We met our host and went up to the level our cinema was on, only to find it had been moved to another cinema. So, down two levels, we bought popcorn and prepared for our movie to start, only to find out it had been re-scheduled for an hour later… So instead, we sat, talked and ate way too much popcorn. It was brilliant.

The movie was excellent but quite difficult for us to follow – lucky we had our host there to explain a little of the plot. After a late finish, she took us to a fantastic Punjabi restaurant where we enjoyed an absolutely amazing meal together. Tandoori chicken with lime and yoghurt, beautifully steamed rice, a bean dahl and a specialty of fried garlic cloves, along with an incredible traditional Indian sweet and a betel nut drink to freshen our mouths once we were done. Dinner at midnight, and this place was still packed. The food was one of the best meals we’ve had in Mumbai, and our beautiful host was so generous to take us out.

It honestly was such a wonderful way to celebrate our short time spent with her, and we are so grateful to have found such a wonderful person here in Mumbai. Tomorrow was to be our final day in Mumbai before heading off on a train journey away from the West and into the North to Rajisthan: first stop, Udaipur.

Goin’, Goa, Gone India – 12 – 14.08.13

Here I am, sitting on my bed for the night, the top bunk of a set of three berth bunks, within an 8 berth bunk section of our Sleeper Class train cabin. My face inches away from a set of three very ancient looking, inch-thick with dust fans, the man next to me (only a metal grate between us) doesn’t look so inviting and I think he might be a snorer. From my top bunk view, I can count fourteen – yes fourteen! – pairs of dirty bare feet. Including Jakes. This could possibly become my worst nightmare, very quickly. Ugh.

This morning was spent casually; the lead up to our first-ever Indian railway adventure looming. We needed to prepare. Jake woke early to fetch chai and we spent the morning packing up our backpacks (and locking them twice!), which we’d done a fantastic job of emptying and sprawling over the entire guestroom over the course of the previous two days.
We visited the supermarket to stock up on snacks for the journey, but our options were as followed: about 30 different types of sugary biscuits with not-s-enticing names like “Milky Fresh”, “Fabs”, “Hide and Seeks” and “Velvet Browns” and some savoury crackers that were advertised on the packet as “we’re still very sweet!” … we left the supermarket with, of all things, three post cards and no food four our journey.

We took a bus from the Fort to the mainland of Kochi, with the assistance of a lovely Indian woman who told us which bus to catch and then when we should get off, before attempting to walk to the railway station. We got lost. Hot, sweaty and with our packs making our knees hurt, we caved and hired a tuk tuk to take us the rest of the way, which was 20 rupees well spent, considering we would’ve probably never made it otherwise.

Luckily next to the railway there were several little market stalls, and we were able to stock up on bananas, water and chai to stave off hunger for the next 16 or so hours.

The station was a sprawling mess of chairs, people, little shops and eateries, waiting rooms and signs with no English translation. A couple of king young Indian boys assisted us with finding where to go to catch our train, which we were grateful for – even the officers at the station had not been able to assist us, and the Information Counter looked similar to any sort of Indian ‘queue’ – a mass of people fighting over one another, pushing in front of and around each other to get the attention of the one staff member. Yeah, we were not even going to bother with that.

All sorts of people are traveling on this train, and it’s fascinating to observe how people operate. We walked in to our carriage to find about 4 people crammed into seats 21 and 22 – our seats – all of them staring back at us as if to say “yes?…Why are you looking at us?”
When they find out that someone else has actually paid for these seats, they are forced to scuttle away and find another seat that might possibly, just maybe, somehow be available for them.
At each stop this happens over and over, I’m watching people walk through our carriage scouring for an opening – somewhere, any seat – that might actually not already be occupied. This is our first train trip, of course, and I think there’s a lot more to learn about how this complex system operates.

On the train after having been forced to use the latrine and wee in zig-zagging motion through a little black hole, I suddenly had a flashback to that moment when we booked our tickets and were told “Yes, oh yes, very comfortable and clean, oh yes” by the lovely man who was now obviously very deluded. Lovely and clean – my ass it was! – but I can handle toilets flooded with urine, dirty feet and dusty fans, cramped spaces filled with strange men, sleeping in the same clothes I’ve worn all day and using my backpack as my pillow. This is an experience I’m oddly loving, and furthermore, what better way to people watch and gain a little more insight into the culture, from way up here in my no curtain, fan-only, sleeper berth.

Speeding along, the fans ware spinning, the breeze was nice through the open windows, and the train hummed along the tracks. People were sleeping head to foot with their carriage buddies, people were chatting, drinking chai, reading, listening to music, watching movies, relaxing, playing with their children on these lovely and clean bunks.
Already, I love Indian trains.

Late in the night, we are bombarded by a group of Indian boys – the same ages as both Jake and I – who are also traveling to Goa “for to enjoy the life.” We spent a couple of hours sitting with them in the bunks chatting and laughing, whist they took a hundred-plus photographs of us and the ‘ring leader,’ as I shall call him, spends a good portion of time giving us a personal viewing of the eight thousand photographs of himself on his mobile, “giving pose” – as he described itin eight thousand ridiculous different outfits. Every time he showed us another photograph of himself in unflattering tight pants and a trout pout facial expression, he asked us “How is this, you think?”

We didn’t get much sleep on the train and arrived at the awful hour of 4:10am. What a fucking night mare time that is to arrive into a new destination – learning curve; we won’t be doing that again. Thankfully the rowdy boys were getting off at the same stop and they woke us up. How they knew it was the right stop I have no idea – no announcements, not large signage saying ‘welcome to your destination,’ no obvious anything that might possibly indicate we were there.

Regardless, we got off and walked out of the station into the black night time sky, where just two tuk tuk drivers were waiting. “Where you go?” they asked us… “uuum… we don’t even know!” I responded.

So, we sat there in the open air at 4:30am, alongside a hundred odd sleeping Indian bodies, eating biscuits and reading our guide book, trying to decide where to go. Eventually we decided we’d settle on Agonda, and then tomorrow move along to the next destination, with a plan to spend about 6 nights in Goa then move on to Mumbai by train.

We waited and waited for a more reasonable hour, and eventually at 5:30am, we took a taxi to the bus station with the hope of their being frequent buses, as per what we’d read.
We were wrong. The bus station was still dark and full of sleeping bodies and clusters of men, and no buses were leaving until 7am.Shit.

I turned around and suddenly, like a shining beacon of hope, there it was – a 24/7 coffee house. No matter how bad the coffee is, we’re going there! I was almost skipping with joy – along with the 20kgs of baggage on my back – at the fact that we would not have to endure that dark, dodgy bus station.

We finally caught a bus that was headed for Agonda – an hour or so spent packed in with a hundred odd other bodies; school children, farmers, women with baskets of vegetables and one lady who spent the trip tying long beans together in bunches with string. How foolish I was to think that an early bus would be less crowded. This is India, Emily!

During the bus trip, we were informed that our bus did not go to Agonda as promised, and we would have to catch a very over priced tuk tuk the rest of the way. Seeing as it’s low season, we should have guessed the issues that we were about to face here in Goa.

Arriving into Agonda early morning, we checked in to a cheapy but fine guest house with a view looking out over the swirling ocean waves. Hungry, we walked into town hoping to find a little café in this quiet stretch of coast… and that’s when we began to slowly realize that literally, everything in Agonda is shut. Not just for the morning, not just for the day. For the entire low season. Every shop, restaurant, eatery, book store and touristy place was covered with blue tarp. Monsoon season here meant not one place was in business, besides three tiny convenience stores that were not very convenient. We felt trapped.
 

Our only real option, seeing as we had already handed over all our clothing to be laundered, meant hiring another overpriced tuk tuk to take us to Palolem – the super touristy area that would have a few shops and eateries open at this time of year.
Palolem was okay, but felt more like a Thailand tourist strip – complete with flimsy knock off clothing, bongs and pipes in the window sills of shops and staff sitting lazily outside the doors begging us to come in.

We ate a dodgy meal, wandered the beach aimlessly, saw a motorbike accident, watched several badly injured dogs struggle to walk around the main area, bought a pineapple for dinner (since nothing would be open), wandered through a couple of shops and then, when we’d had enough; more exhausted than I can describe after the train journey, we took another over priced tuk tuk back to empty Agonda.

We spent the afternoon and evening relaxing to the sounds of the ocean and rain, eating delicious pineapple and crackers with vegemite and reading the Classifeds section of The Hindu newspaper – the Wanted adds for Brides and Grooms is an interesting read, to say the least.

We were planning to spend 6 nights exploring Goa, but after realizing today that low season here means basically EMPTY, we booked ourselves a sleeper bus to Hampi – departing from Panji (Goa’s capital) tomorrow night. I’ve read a lot of good things about Hampi and I think it will deliver a lot more than Goa has…I guess, what this simply means is we’ll have to come back to India again. When everything in Goa is open.

Fort (Fought) India: 9 – 10.08.13

Today we moved away from Alleppey, up the coast to Kochi (Cochin); still within beautiful Kerala.

After street food and the obligatory chai, we hopped on to a dodgy looking bus; the worst we’ve seen yet, only to be confronted with a massive puddle of vomit by the front seat. Moving away instantly, we sat down and packed away our huge packs (Indian buses don’t seem to be designed to accommodate for luggage), only to be informed by an English speaking man and a rather large, belly-out older lady who just simply stood over Jake and eye-balled us, that actually, this is a ladies only seat; Jake – you’ll have to move. So, whilst Jake was relegated to sit with the men up the back [who all fell asleep on him], I was wedged in between the window and two very portly ladies who spent the two hour bus ride staring at me.
Oh, India…

Down from the bus in Ernakulam, Kochi, we had to then get a ferry over to Fort Kochi, 3.5km or about 20 minutes over sea. Finding the ferry was easy enough, but buying a ticket was an unorganized, inefficient, chaotic ordeal. To put a positive spin on things, let us call it a “learning experience – a lesson in queuing in India.”
In a small room there are two very long lines that form in front of one ticket booth, staffed by only one person.
There is a normal queue – used only by men (with about 40 people lined up at the time), and a ladies only queue. Neither of these seem to be moving, although the ladies queue was significantly shorter (about 10 women). Next to the ladies queue is what I can only describe as an unofficial queue; more like a group of men who stand there, trying to pay off the ladies to buy them their ticket so they don’t have to line up.
Oh, India…
Each passenger is strictly forbidden from buying any more than two tickets at one time apparently, as is explained by many different signs within the room, and you can absolutely not buy a return ticket – how absurd to think that you might want to return to the mainland at some point. These rules make competition fierce between those in the unofficial queue, and the men were relentless with their questioning and underhanded money transfers.
I joined the ladies queue and stood in the line surrounded by men on both sides – both the unofficial queue and the men’s queue – and then the next 20 minutes were just ridiculous, eye-opening and uncomfortable.
Whilst standing in the line that never seemed to move, it felt like I was the unwilling star attraction in a parade that everyone had come out to see. The men stared, and stared, and then stared a bit more, all the while, shoving money at me (and other women) and asking for me to buy them a ticket.
Between ignoring the staring and the constant hands shoving money at me for tickets, I spent my time being pushed, shoved, hung off, coughed on, squeezed and leant on by the woman behind me. First she hung of my backpack, scrunching my clothing with one of her hands and tapping my arm as though it was a natural habit; as if that would make this line go faster. At one point, a lady at the very front of the queue must’ve recieved her ticket, and the woman behind me shoved me forward so hard – before anyone else in the line could even move forward. Ah, lady, please! Talk about impatient… I ended up pulling my backpack around onto one shoulder and shoving my elbow hard into my pack every time she leant on me, in the hope she’d back off, oh, you know, even slightly, but it just made her cling to and then push me even more. I gave her the look. Even that didn’t work… I was at a loss.
By the time the queue had moved forward and I was the next customer, I thought it was over, but then I had to fight off her hand that shot out over my shoulder, clinging to her rupees in the hope she could purchase her ticket before me. I don’t think they quite understand the notion of a queue, but there was no way I was letting this pushy woman rain on my unwilling parade!
I held up two fingers to the ticket master and he took my rupees. Without knowing the cost of the ticket, and being unable to ask on account of being unable to hear and almost trampled by men and the clingy bitch behind me who kept slapping her arm about over my shoulder like a wet fish, I had faith the non-corrupt ticket man would return my change and my ticket… which he did…for three people. Oh, what’s that – only two tickets allowed per person?
When I finally fought free of the irritating woman and the crowds of men, I realised I’d been short changed as well having been unfairly charged for three tickets instead of the two I had asked for, and was apparently only allowed.
Thanks, India…

Furthermore, all this happened under the watchful eyes of Indian policemen.
Oh, India…

Ordeal aside, we had to laugh at the craziness of this situation and the event that was unfolding before us… two queues that were going wild with impatience. You’d think that maybe this ridiculously inefficient system might’ve been upgraded to something that worked a little better, but again, this is not our culture; all we can do is observe, laugh, and get ripped off in the process.

We spent the afternoon in Fort Kochi not doing too much; just exploring, browsing books stores, walking, trying to work out if we go to Goa or Mysore next (the tough decisions we are forced to make these days) and then attempting to book train tickets for tomorrow night, which didn’t work. We spent the evening walking along a not-so-nice stretch of rubbish and litter “beach”, past the famous and fantastic-looking Chinese Fishing Nets and stall after stall after stall of fishmongers selling their latest (still alive!) catches.

Kochi is well catered to tourists and the locals are really friendly and welcoming (even the ones blatantly scamming you!) That, and there are ‘free wifi’ signs outside every café and guest house , shops selling all types of silks, pashmina scarves and brightly coloured fall-apart-the-next-day hippy pants, tailors wanting to sew you up anything you could possibly want, handicrafts and government souvenir shops with salesmen just desperate for you to “just only looking, looking is free,” and gelato shops that sell “the best coffee” apparently.

With the question of Goa or Mysore? still remaining, we wern’t sure where we’d end up tomorrow – getting to Mysore sounded expensive and difficult and involved the words “Government Bus” which automatically made me think twice… with train time tables not lining up and seats unavailable, we decided we’d stay one more night.

Our second day in the Fort was wonderful, spent simply enjoying the Fort and what it has to offer. Jacob went out early and bought back some South Indian street food for breakfast; dosas, idilys and pitthu along with a pea curry sauce and obligatory chai, and we started our day with a true Indian-style breakfast.

We decided today we would head to Mantacherry and to Jew Town, an area of the Fort that once, hundreds of years ago, was occupied by hundreds of Jewish people. Our guest house owner explained to us that 400-odd years ago, when banks didn’t exist, the wealthy Jews living here in the Fort kept their money safely in their family homes. The men would go to work and the women would stay at home with the children, ensuring the money was kept safe. At one stage, a group of Muslims began invading the Jewish people’s homes when the men were at work, murdering the women and children and stealing their money. This problem continued and the Jews were forced to ask the King for help. The King decided to combat this problem, he would give the Jewish people their own area of land, which is now known as Jew Town. It was located right next to the Palace, complete with gaurds at the entrance to ensure the families were safe. When Israel became its own country, many Jews immigrated to Israel, leaving behind only a few families in Kochi. Now, there are only a few Jewish people remaining. We were told contradicting numbers, so I guess the best I can do is note that there is somewhere between 8 and 24 Jews living still in Kochi. There are no longer any living Rabbis here, therefore the single Jewish Synagogue is now no longer in use.

We were approached by a driver who claimed he spoke very good English, and “although I’m not an encyclopedia, I have a good “Product knowledge” (knowledge of this area). Cute.
The next three hours or so giving us a fantastic tour of the Fort and through several different sights, giving us insight into the area, the people, the history, the culture, the lifestyle, and India.
We visited the ‘first Church in India’, and passed several old Dutch, Portuguese and British houses, as well as some that once belonged to Jewish families (most of which are either now fancy hotels, cafes or owned by rich Keralans).
We were given little brief history lessons along the way, as well as life lessons, a language lesson in the Mayalalayam – the dialect of Kerala – and just really fascinating stories and information.
We visited the local laundry – where around 55 Tamil people – I think for memory we were told 40 men and 15 women – spend their days tirelessly washing, scrubbing, beating, bashing, hanging, drying, ironing and folding every hotel, hospital, restraurant and paying customer’s clothing. The area was fascinating; the people washing stand in a small ‘section’ – completely immersed in a pool of water to just below their knees –  scrubbing and rinsing and then ringing and ‘bashing’ (the best way I can describe the motion) the laundry against a hard surface. Inside the building, elderly people spent their time moving HEAVY coal powered (fuelled by burning coconut shells) irons over people’s jeans and shirts, finally folding them in immaculate piles. They all gracefully stopped to smile and wave at us, and Jake was given a brief job to iron a patch of denim.

We visited a fruit market to buy some pomegranates and bananas, and then we asked if our driver – Salim – would take us to get some chai. He proceeded to take us to ‘the best place in Kochi – famous, he told us, for sweets and the best samosas in Kerala. That’s a big claim to make when we’re in Samosa country… Before we entered, we got to watch the makers of all the various Indian sweets (which all involve either lots of oil, lots of sugar, lots of ghee, lots of pastry, and most commonly, a mix of all of these ingredients.) They graciously smiled for us and went about making their sweets with such speed and accuracy, sitting on the hard floor in the heat of a tiny kitchen area, surrounded by pots and pans, woks filled with boiling oil, vats of mixture and powders and other things, all bare footed and shirtless. It’s truly amazing, how these people work.

We had chai and samosas, and Salim ordered us a sweet he thought was the best for us to try – I’ve decided that I do not like Indian sweets (thank goodness, I do not need more sugar – the sugar in Chai is enough to fatten me up way more than I’d like!) , they all seem to taste the same to me; oily and overly sweet with a nothing-else taste. Indians sure love sugar. I’ll be lucky to leave this country without having developed diabetes simply from the few cups of chai I consume each day.

We visited the Dutch Palace which had some beautiful and incredibly detailed (so detailed it was overwhelming!) murals on several of the internal walls. It was really interesting.

We visited a spice market in action, as well as a ginger factory; both were fascinating to see but of course, we didn’t buy anything. Not that we wanted anything, but thankfully we can graciously use the excuse “Oh, we’re Australians – our customs have strict rules would confiscate anything we bought.” That excuse – which also happens to be true – actually works here, the locals say, understandingly, “ah, Australians. No, you can’t buy”, unlike in Sri Lanka where the sellers enthusiastically told us of course we can take fresh spice into our country.

Even though I’d specifically said NO SHOPS when we hired him, when it came to the end of the tour, Salim begged us to visit one shop for him – of course – so he could “get points”, ensuring we just have to walk in and look and leave. I begrudgingly dragged my ass from the tuk tuk, a little pissed but not surprised that we’d have to walk through a shop filled with wooden elephants, carpets, scarves and jewelery – none of which we want – and continually say no to pushy sales people.
Which, is exactly what we did, escaping – eventually – after the salesman had begged us to buy just one thing. “Not much money for you, just small money for you” he explained, further backing up his begging with a story that his boss will scold him and doesn’t like giving the staff their pay packets when they don’t actually make any sales, and that this business will most likely probably might be closing soon because it’s not doing good business without our single not much money sale…

The evening was spent wandering about and drinking copious cups of chai. We booked our train tickets to Goa tomorrow – we were only able to get Sleeper Class which will be… interesting to say the least – and took a stroll. We ended up back at the Chinese Fishing Nets where a fish auction was taking place as a boat had docked and was unloading new big fish.

Tomorrow we embark on our first Indian railway journey – a 14.5 hour sleeper class, 850km journey from Kochi, Kerala to Goa.